Civil rights, anti-crime push bode political ill

This Just In ...

January 24, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

TALMADGE BRANCH is a soft-spoken state delegate from East Baltimore and one of many African-American men who've been stopped by police for "driving while black." It's happened to him at least three times, most recently last summer in downtown Baltimore. The last experience was the most annoying and upsetting. Branch complained about it. The Police Department's response added insult to injury.

Readers of this column will recall that a police officer stopped Branch on the Fallsway, a block or so from Police Department headquarters, late one night in June. Branch had been driving his smoke-silver Mercedes-Benz with House of Delegates tags.

"You have House of Delegates tags on your car," the officer said, giving his reason for the stop.

"Well," Branch answered, "I'm a member of the House of Delegates."

From the 45th District, as a matter of fact, elected in 1994.

The special tags are on Branch's car all year -- even after the General Assembly session ends each April.

"According to my book," Branch quoted the officer, "you're not supposed to be driving with your delegate tags while you're not in session."

The officer was wrong. Elected officials drive throughout Maryland with special tags all year. You might have noticed this in your travels.

Branch, who's 44 but looks 10 years younger, said the officer refused to give his full name, and he described the officer as rude. Miffed at another "driving while black" stop, Branch registered a complaint with the city police administration.

In November, he received a telephone call from an official with the department's Internal Investigation Division. Branch was told that no disciplinary action would be taken against the officer.

But get this: The IID official told Branch that the department had "learned" something from the experience. The department had "learned" that it's indeed legal for members of the House of Delegates to drive around with their special tags all year.

Isn't that special?

"I just held my breath when I heard that," Branch says. "And then I moved the phone away so I could release a big sigh."

He found it impossible to believe that Baltimore police officers had just "learned" this.

"That was not the issue at all, anyway," Branch says.

The issue was the rudeness of the officer -- and the reasonable assumption that he had stopped Branch only because he was a young-looking, African-American male in an expensive car.

Which gets us to Annapolis.

Branch and other city delegates will join with Del. Pete Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, in an effort to ban racial profiling in police stops. Rawlings has introduced a bill to that end. The national Fraternal Order of Police has opposed such legislation in other states, and will likely do the same here.

Which sets up a tricky and complicated political debate.

Consider that Rawlings was a significant supporter of Martin O'Malley's during the new mayor's campaign last year.

Consider the central promise of O'Malley's campaign -- a strong attack on crime with a zero-tolerance approach. Judging from the election results, residents of Baltimore, black and white, like this idea very much.

But one of the concerns with zero-tolerance policing -- even among O'Malley supporters -- is that it could lead to abuse of civil liberties, police misconduct, even brutality.

So here we have O'Malley-backer Rawlings raising a civil rights issue and attacking racial profiling just as the new mayor urges his new police commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, to take fast and sweeping action to clean up hot drug corners and reduce homicides.

Fasten your seat belts, friends.

Unintended warning

I think it's great the Police Department is going to tear into that huge backlog of arrest warrants. That was an impressive news conference Friday (the day after the new mayor chided the new police commissioner for not moving fast enough on crime initiatives). But let me ask: Was it a good idea to let the 260 people wanted for murder and attempted murder know the police will be coming after them with greater urgency next month? Wouldn't it have been wiser just to smoke them out, bring them in and tell us about it afterward?

Musical benefactors

High fives to Kirk, Mark and Lopez, the morning crew at 98 Rock. They dipped into the 98 Rock 'N' Recovery Fund, the reservoir of revenue from KM&L's three compact discs, and gave $2,000 to Matthew Rocks, the Fells Point musician who was injured in an attack by a gang of drunken thugs on Lancaster Street (TJI, Jan. 19). The KM&L team surprised Rocks with the announcement on the air Thursday. That frosty night, his musician colleagues staged a spirited fund-raiser for the singer-guitarist at Fletcher's and raised $1,600 to cover his medical expenses and provide income while Rocks recuperates from the beating.

Taking a stab at the Internet

Here's an example of the if-you-build-it-they-will-find-it power of the Internet.

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